As a legal recruiter, I often find myself coaching my candidates about whether and when they can ask certain questions during an interview. Specifically, I can’t express how many times a candidate has called me after viewing a posting on our website, and asks, right away, “Do you know what they are paying?” While this is a perfectly acceptable question to ask the legal recruiter with whom you are working, it is an excellent example of a question you should not ask during an interview with a law firm. If you do, it may well mean the end of the interview process for you.
Salary information may well be provided to you during the interview process by the law firm. However, it is not appropriate for you to broach the topic during an interview. I have often heard of interviewers or even law firm recruiting coordinators who will bring up salary and bonus structure right off the bat. I have seen this happen particularly when a candidate is moving from a larger (read: higher-paying) market to a smaller market; sometimes law firms want to make sure a candidate understands that they would be taking a pay cut because the cost of living is lower in that geographic region. This happens especially in law firms where salaries are lockstep.
Some law firms will not bring salary up until they are ready to offer. This may happen for several reasons: for example, some law firms pay different associates different salaries. A law firm may compensate a particular associate in non-salary ways, for example, paying for moving expenses, bar dues, or bar exam costs if relocating to another state. They may choose to incentivize associates by paying generous hours-related bonuses, or even giving a percentage of business brought in, rather than a more lucrative base salary. Certain firms are notorious for asking laterals to take a seniority hit as a matter of course, and they may not decide until they are ready to make an offer what class year they will offer the candidate. If the candidate is transitioning to another practice area, he or she may also be asked to step back in class year. Walking in the door, you do not know how a particular law firm operates in terms of how it compensates its associates, and the firm may not know how it will ultimately compensate you.
There are several ways you can get salary information without asking, or at least get an idea what you may be looking at. If you are working with a legal recruiter, they may be able to give you a ballpark figure, especially if you are dealing with a lockstep firm. However, don’t be surprised if your recruiter can’t tell you, or is not comfortable giving you an exact figure, largely for the reasons stated above. While a recruiter may be able to give you an estimate, the firm may have a creative compensation structure that does not necessarily match up with the recruiter’s past experience.
Another avenue of which I am a big fan is your law school career services office. Some collect and save information, much as recruiters do. Some will direct you to associates or partners at that firm who are alumni of your school. If you are direct and persistent, you may be able to get these people to speak frankly to you. Tell them honestly that you are talking to the firm and want to get a better idea of what it is like to work there.
Of course, there are several online resources that contain information about law firms. Infirmation, Glassdoor, and Lawfirmstats all contain salary information which may not be 100% accurate, but can give you some idea of what you are looking at.
In sum, be patient. The firm will tell you what they have in mind in terms of salary when they are ready, either during the process or when they make you an offer. At that point you can decide to move forward, or, if you are at the offer stage, you can attempt to negotiate a different salary.